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The limited edition Hajj pilgrimage of 2020 starts July 29: Saudi officials

With strict hygiene protocols and access limited to pilgrims under 65 years old and without any chronic illnesses, only 1,000 people will be able to take part in the pilgrimage and will need to be quarantined after the event.

This year’s hajj, which has been scaled back dramatically to include only around 1,000 Muslim pilgrims as Saudi Arabia battles a coronavirus surge, will begin on July 29, authorities said Monday.

Some 2.5 million people from all over the world usually participate in the ritual that takes place over several days, centred on the holy city of Mecca.

The limited edition Hajj pilgrimage of 2020

This year’s hajj will be held under strict hygiene protocols, with access limited to pilgrims under 65 years old and without any chronic illnesses.

Read more: Saudi Arabia opens Hajj registration for foreign residents within the Kingdom

“The stand of pilgrims on Mount Arafat, the peak of the hajj ritual, falls on Thursday,” the official Saudi Press Agency cited the Supreme Court as saying, indicating that Wednesday would be the first day of the annual event.

The timing of the hajj is determined by the position of the moon, in accordance with the Islamic lunar calendar.

Last month, Saudi Arabia announced it would hold a “very limited” hajj, a decision fraught with political and economic peril as it battles a surge in coronavirus infections.

It has seen some 253,349 cases so far including 2,523 deaths — the highest toll among the Arab Gulf states.

Although hajj officials said the pilgrimage of 2020 would be restricted to 1,000 people already present in the kingdom, 70 percent of them foreigners and the rest Saudis, some press reports have said that 10,000 people may take part.

The ritual will be restricted to medical professionals and security personnel who have recovered from the virus, the hajj ministry said.

Disappointment among Muslims around the globe

The decision to exclude pilgrims arriving from outside Saudi Arabia is a first in the kingdom’s modern history and has sparked disappointment among Muslims worldwide, although many accepted it was necessary due to the pandemic.

The pilgrims will be tested for coronavirus before arriving in Mecca and are required to quarantine at home after the ritual, according to health officials.

Read more: Hajj 2020: Is Saudi Arabia considering limiting the number of pilgrimages?

Saudi Arabia has seen an uptick in both confirmed infections and deaths from COVID-19 since easing movement restrictions in late May. It has yet to restore international air links.

The hajj — a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime — could be a major source of contagion, as it packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites.

The Saudi-based Muslim World League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have backed the government’s move for the health and safety of pilgrims.

But the decision still risks angering hardline Muslims for whom religion trumps health concerns.

Economic repercussions of a downsized Hajj

A scaled-down hajj represents a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.

The smaller year-round umrah pilgrimage was already suspended in March.

Together, they add $12 billion to the Saudi economy every year, according to government figures.

The downturn has also disrupted Riyadh’s ambitious plans to build a tourism industry from scratch, a cornerstone of the Vision 2030 reform programme to reduce the kingdom’s reliance on oil.

Read more: Economy to take a hit as Hajj curtailed for 2020 by Saudi Arabia

Hosting the hajj is a matter of prestige for Saudi rulers, for whom the custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites is their most powerful source of political legitimacy.

But a series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has prompted criticism of the kingdom’s management of the pilgrimage.

In attempts to better its management of the Hajj procession the royal kingdom has given guidelines to be followed for this years Hajj.

Saudi Health Minister Tawfiq Al-Rabiah said the ministry has prepared a hospital in case of emergencies during the 2020 pilgrimage.

It will be mandatory for both pilgrims and organisers to wear face masks at all time during the annual Hajj processions.

Read more: All roads lead to Saudi Arabia as Turkey begins trial of Kashoggi murderers

This is the first time in Saudi Arabia’s nearly 90-year history that foreign visitors have been barred from performing Hajj. The Hajj has been cancelled because of war and past epidemics throughout history, but not since the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk